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Esther Cepeda: Demographic role reversals

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Esther Cepeda
September 3, 2014

CHICAGO -- In my fantasy world, public relations professionals send me pitches extolling the virtues of the “white Robert Rodriguez.” But no, I get come-ons about (shudder) “the next Latina Mark Cuban.” Leaving aside the fact that aspiring to be a spoiled, trash-talking millionaire is dubious at best, a pitch I recently received from an investment group for women is illustrative of the odious shortcut of relating an unknown Hispanic quantity to a known name.

Univision anchor Jorge Ramos is often referred to as the Spanish-language Walter Cronkite (ironically, Ramos bears a closer resemblance to CNN’s Anderson Cooper). On Spanish-language celebrity gossip sites, you can find plenty of references to movie and TV stars and their corresponding Hispanic look-alikes—the Latino George Clooney, the Latina Vanessa Hudgens.

It’s a noxious little quirk that seems to be limited mainly to Hispanics. One can hardly imagine hearing about “the black Jackie Chan,” “the Asian Beyonce” or “the Native American Lady Gaga.” And rarely does one hear of this shorthand happening to nonminorities. Have you ever heard an entertainer referred to as the “white Kanye West” or an athlete as a “white Jeremy Lin”? Not that there necessarily shouldn’t be. Both of these all-American success stories of big dreams, hard work and good hustle exemplify the very definition of making it. And yet, a white pop sensation—Billy Joel, Justin Bieber, Garth Brooks—is just a pop star. Same for pro athletes Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

When it comes to demographics, white has always been the standard in the United States. Yet I’m just biding my time until the day when nonwhites are seen as so integral to the very fabric of this country that nonminorities aspire to their level of skill, talent or wealth.

I’d love it if people actively labeled Seth MacFarlane “the white Lalo Alcaraz” because it would require two things: One, that the Hispanic cartoonist had reached household-name status and, two, that no one was hesitant to categorize MacFarlane’s “Family Guy” as being about suburban white culture, rich with references to the white-American experience, circa 1979 to the present. Maybe MacFarlane’s upcoming “Bordertown” TV series, on which he and Alcaraz are collaborators, can accomplish this.

In the movie world, critics have panned “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” because of its sex, exploitation and effects-driven violence. I loved the movie because it is, as I told my two sons—who have been required to delight in the Robert Rodriguez film canon—an adoring homage to 1950s film noir.

“Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” was lovingly crafted to celebrate early American film, from the scene composition to the camera angles and orchestral soundtrack. There are skid-row drunks, peppy ingenues, hard-boiled detectives and a Joan Crawford-esque screen siren with looks that kill.

Say whatever you want about the plot or dialogue rendition of Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name, there is no questioning the passion for film past, present and future that Rodriguez brings to this movie. This is mastery that warrants aspiration.

But not because Rodriguez is considered a good filmmaker, “for a Hispanic.” Or because he makes good “Hispanic movies.” The beautiful paradox is that there is nothing Hispanic about “Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For.” We can also say this about Rodriguez’s other major hits, the “Spy Kids” franchise and “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D.” And yet these films feature Latino actors and actresses playing something other than maids, gardeners, nannies or immigrant victims. In an award acceptance speech before the San Antonio Association of Hispanic Journalists, the director said that when he went to make “Spy Kids,” the studio was dumbfounded about why the film’s well-to-do, nuclear, suburban family would be Hispanic.

“The studio was like…. ‘Why don’t you just make them American so you don’t confuse people?’ Well they are American, they’re Hispanic-American and it’s not going to be in Spanish,” Rodriguez recalled telling the film executives. He said changing perceptions is “all about precedent.” Indeed. It will only take a few plucky PR people to make “the white Robert Rodriguez” and other such shorthands a trend. I’ll be waiting.

Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.



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